BY MARTHA CALHOON
The UO’s Black Student Union office is a busy space. Cell phones ring, students study together on couches, and fliers paper the walls. But within those 12- by 20-foot confines, there is community — something that many black students say is hard to find elsewhere in Eugene.
Community is important to students like Abrina Wheatfall, the BSU’s programs coordinator assistant, who says that the lack of an established, vibrant African-American community in the city can be alienating to new black residents. “When you do have to deal with racism, even when it’s subtle, there is no one to turn to for support,” she says. The other students in the office nod.
“I was going crazy before I found the BSU,” says freshman Cree Gordon, who has settled into a chair in the corner of the office. The ethnicity of this multiracial, Louisiana-born freshman, who sports a curly, bottle-blond “faux-hawk,” is not immediately obvious, and Gordon says that the BSU is the only local place where he isn’t asked about his race.
BSU member Felicia Wheatfall said that overall, most white Eugeneans fail to acknowledge that the local black community feels disenfranchised. An absence of overt racism allows the community to tout its tolerance without recognizing underlying prejudices.
“What’s worse than being a racist is to say you’re open-minded and then choose not to have a dialogue about race,” Wheatfall says. “At least in a place like Mississippi, people will tell you ‘Yeah, I’m a racist.’ Here they won’t. Everyone will claim to be open-minded, but their actions are to the contrary.”
These issues came to light during the May 10 BSU meeting. The conference room buzzed with discussion about the most recent draft of the UO’s Diversity Plan, the latest development in a charged ongoing debate about campus race politics.
BSU member Ty Schwoeffermann, a student who worked with members of the administration to craft the diversity plan, says that a palpable tension surrounds any discussion of diversity issues on campus. “The fact that this plan is potentially going to make changes within the institutional structure is really threatening to the power structure that is already in place,” he says. “We are seeing a lot more conflict on campus, and I feel like black students are getting it worse than anybody.”
In recent months, black students on campus claim to have been targeted for harassment by opponents of the plan. Reported incidents of rock throwing and name calling have served to further marginalize a group of students that only represents roughly 1 percent of the student body.
Discussion of campus race dynamics was thrown into sharp focus earlier this year when Martin Summers, UO history professor and director of the Ethnic Studies Program, announced his decision to accept a position at the University of Texas. His departure will leave just one tenured black faculty member at the UO.
Although it’s natural for some faculty members to accept offers from other institutions, Summers’ announcement was met with student protest, rallies and editorials claiming that the university’s inability to retain the popular professor belies its commitment to diversity. What the fervor over Summers’ departure reveals is the absence of a critical mass of black scholars and black students at Oregon’s flagship university. Students and faculty fear this will have a chilling effect on the enrollment and retention of black students.
UO Academic Advisor Lyllye Parker (the first African-American baby born at Sacred Heart; see sidebar) says that students of color need “allies of color” among the faculty in order to not feel marginalized on campus. “It’s important for students to have faculty they can relate to and role models,” she says.
Although issues of funding, competitiveness and the history of the institution come into play in broader discussion of minority hires, Parker says it is crucial that the university earnestly address issues of minority under-representation. “One Martin Summers can make a world of difference on a predominantly white campus,” she says.
Indeed, Summers’ impending departure deeply affected the students at the BSU meeting. A room alive with laughter and boisterous conversation quickly became a sea of solemn faces at the acknowledgment that, come fall, black students at the UO will have one fewer senior faculty advocate.
Although Summers attributes his decision to professional advancement for himself and his partner, he also does not hesitate to acknowledge UO race politics as a factor.
“Part of what makes Texas so attractive is the investment that the university has made in building a critical mass of scholars of color in general, and a core group of scholars interested in African-American and African diaspora studies in particular. This is something that I do not see the University of Oregon ever doing,” he says. “If there had been more of a commitment on the part of the University of Oregon to develop a critical mass of faculty of color — or even an acknowledgment that the lack of one is a problem — the chances of my staying would have increased.”
Summers isn’t leaving alone. Summers’ partner, Karl Mundt, is a dance coach for the UO club sports program. Mundt recently led the school’s hip hop dance team to its first national title. The University of Texas also made an offer to Mundt
Felicia and Abrina Wheatfall echo Summers’ concerns from a student perspective. Felicia contends that for the most part, students aren’t required to read texts by authors from diverse racial backgrounds. In addition, she feels that by not developing a critical mass of black scholars, the UO perpetuates a “culture of whiteness” in spite of its claims to the contrary.
Abrina concurs. As the only black student in many of her classes, she says, professors often look to her for confirmation when race issues come up. “If you don’t feel comfortable handling the class, how am I supposed to feel comfortable taking it?” she rhetorically asks her professors.
“As black students, we are tired of teaching our professors about race,” Felicia adds.
According to BSU member Jontae’ Grace, the problem goes beyond the marginalization of black students. He contends that the UO’s homogenous racial makeup puts the entire student body at a disadvantage. “It’s depriving white students of something also,” he says. “They are losing a crucial part of their education by not gaining the cross-cultural communication skills needed to succeed in a global job market. It has a more profound affect on us, but it is also not adequately equipping students to go out into the real world. Most of the people in the world are people of color, and we need to prepare everyone to be well-rounded.”
Senior Vice President and Provost Charles Martinez is quick to acknowledge the value of increased minority faculty, not only for students of color, but for the institution as whole. He cautions, however, against simplifying the issue of minority recruitment on both the student and faculty levels to “a numbers game.”
“One of the things that happens in conversations about critical mass is that we see critical mass as the goal and then that’s critiqued … I think appropriately,” he says. “The goal isn’t to have ‘X’ number of African-American faculty on this campus. That in and of itself is a simplistic way of thinking about what critical mass really means.”
The real goal, according to Martinez, is to foster innovative thinking and substantive expertise within departments that can come from a racially diverse faculty. He also says that students of color need to see pathways into new majors and departments. These types of changes, according to Martinez, will have to take place at a departmental level and not only through initiatives from the central administration.
Yet numbers are hard to ignore. According to figures published by the office of the registrar, of the roughly 19,600 students enrolled at the UO, only 318 are black. Blacks only surpass Native Americans in terms of minority student enrollment.
While the number of black students has fluctuated slightly over the past five years, their overall representation has remained between 1.4 and 1.6 percent. Of the 318 who are currently enrolled, at least 68 are the result of athletic recruitment. To some, this demonstrates that minority recruitment is a low priority for campus administrators.
“If the university put as much effort into recruiting students and staff of color as they do to recruit their football team, we would have a great, diverse university, just like we have a great football team,” Felicia Wheatfall says.
The UO’s predicament reflects the greater Eugene community’s struggle with diversity: In an overwhelmingly white population, black Eugeneans are most prominent on local billboards depicting young university athletes. Primarily from other parts of the country, they are brought here for a short tenure on a sports team, not to establish permanent residency, and most don’t.
Few African Americans relocate to Eugene, and even fewer stay. A university and a city that prides themselves on acceptance and celebration of diversity must ask why.
A History of Eugene’s Race Politics
Statistics indicate that 30 years ago, black and Latino people made up about 1 percent of Eugene’s population. Although the Latino population has increased to at least 5 percent in recent years — with more growth expected — the black population has held at 1 percent.
The explanation for this is in part historical, according to Mark Harris, the Multicultural Substance Abuse Prevention Program coordinator at LCC. Harris has been outspoken in matters of race locally for many years and uses his wealth of historical research in a power point presentation he gives to the Eugene School District called “I, too, am Eugene.”
Eugene’s past, according to Harris, is akin to that of a Southern town. When asked to explain the absence of a prominent black community in Eugene, his answer is frank: “Diversity wasn’t wanted,” he says. Below we offer a brief history of Eugene’s race politics.
• 1844: Oregon enacts its first Exclusion Law. The provisional government passes a law prohibiting blacks from living in Oregon. A Lash Law is also written, mandating that any blacks remaining in Oregon, “slave or free,” be whipped twice a year until they leave the territory. Eventually the punishment is reduced to forced labor. These exclusion laws remain in the Oregon Constitution until 1926.
• 1851: Jacob Vanderpool, a free mulatto business owner in Salem, is the only black person on record to be arrested, jailed, tried and deported from the state because of his race.
• 1857: Oregon voters approve a state Constitution which prohibits “free negroes” from settling in Oregon. The margin of approval is greater than that for excluding slavery in Oregon.
• 1859: Oregon is the first state admitted to the union with an Exclusion Law written into its Constitution.
• 1862: Oregon implements additional laws requiring all blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians and mulattos pay an annual tax of $5. Those who are unable are required to perform public service maintaining state roads. Interracial marriage is banned in Oregon; whites are prohibited from marrying anyone “Quadroon” or blacker. This law is not repealed until 1951.
• 1883: The Oregon Legislature refuses to remove the state ban on black suffrage despite the fact that 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had already passed in 1870. Similar attempts to remove the ban fail in 1895 and 1916. The clause is finally removed from the state constitution in 1927.
• 1913: Wiley Griffon, the earliest recorded African-American in Eugene, dies. An obituary notes that he was “one of the most industrious colored men in Eugene” and “what a Southerner would call ‘a good nigger.'”
• 1921–24: Official height of Klan activity in Eugene. Ku Klux Klan #3, with offices in the Beckwith Building, includes UO Latin Department head Cyclops Frederick Dunn, UO football coach C.A. Huntington, two city of Eugene officials, a county commissioner, a National Guard commander, members of the American Legion, Elks Club and Chamber of Commerce, and the publisher of the Daily Guard newspaper (later sold to Alton Baker).
• 1921: Pro-Klan movies shown at McDonald-owned Eugene Theater (later Heilig Theater; now Hult Center).
• 1924: Klan Parade down Willamette Street with rally and Order of the Red Robe initiation at the Fairgrounds, with 400 members in attendance. The local Klan disappears from the public record.
• 1937: Klan meeting in Portland, claiming 16,000 members statewide, naming Eugene as its state headquarters (again), with goals to continue recruiting in law enforcement and to be politically active. Leo and Pearl Washington become the first black family to establish permanent residency in Eugene. Five years later, another black family, the Reynolds (the namesake of Sam Reynolds Street), arrive. Along with the Johnsons and the Mims, they become the “pioneer” black families in Eugene, establishing themselves in the local lumber industry and founding several local black churches.
• Early 1940s: Restricted by racist language in deed transfers, black residents in Eugene are not allowed to own property within city limits, leading to the formation of communities in Glenwood/Skunk Hollow and another community composed of non-code housing known as “Tent City” in what was unincorporated county land, now Alton Baker Park. Tent City is bulldozed in 1949 to make way for reconstruction of the bridge. No accommodation is made to house the displaced residents, so many move to the so-called “Negro Settlement” on West 11th.
• 1946: The Reynolds family delivers a daughter, Lyllye, at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene. She is the first black baby born in the hospital, although the family is listed as “White” on her birth certificate.
• 1948: A Supreme Court ruling bans housing discrimination. Still, many Eugeneans aren’t prepared to integrate black residents into their neighborhoods. A Realtors’ Code prohibits Realtors from selling to anyone whose presence would “reduce the property value.” Many black residents continue to be relegated to the worst housing beyond city limits with no indoor plumbing or wells for water, and no sewer lines or septic tanks.
• 1968: The UO establishes the Congress on Racial Equality and the Human Rights Commission.
• 1969: A student reporter witnesses a Eugene Klan initiation in a barn in Veneta attended by marquee Eugene businessmen. Photographs and article copy are left in a locked editor’s desk at the UO. In the morning the film and copy are gone, and the editor claims to have neither.
• 1985–87: Three black-related events at the Hult Center receive bomb threats.
• 2000: All racist language is removed from the Oregon Constitution. —Martha Calhoon